As power continues to drift toward centralization in both Madison and Washington, the reader will forgive the writer for briefly waxing philosophic before wading back into the mire of contemporary politics. What is, after all, the purpose of our civic arrangement? Why do we even have government? While the strictures of this column are too constraining for a full examination, we can, at least, begin to sketch an outline.
Born into what John Locke called a “state of nature,” all people are endowed with intrinsic rights that are part of our human condition. Among those rights, as our Declaration of Independence points out are the rights of, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” While a complete catalog of our natural rights is innumerable, they are best encapsulated within the happy bubble of “liberty,” assuming that we are alive to exercise it.
Liberty in one’s person is the freedom to think and act according to one’s own will and direction without being constrained by any other person. Liberty is spontaneous thoughts and actions without having to ask anyone’s permission. It is the inherent ability to direct one’s body and mind without any restriction whatsoever that is not imposed by the natural world or one’s own conscience. In this state of pure liberty, a person gains all the benefits and all the consequences of their thoughts and actions.
Of course, that perfect state of liberty can only exist when one is perfectly alone for ever since two humans have existed together, conflict was inevitable. As humans gather in families, then bands, then communities, then nations, our perfect liberty unavoidably conflicts with the perfect liberty of others. Where conflict exists, there must be a means to resolve that conflict.
In a perfect world where all people are wise, just, fair, and equally endowed with physical gifts, these clashes of liberties would be resolved through mutual agreement. Two people would meet and resolve their differences according to their own self-interest without further encroaching on the other. In the real world, however, people are subject to avarice, cruelty, selfishness, rage, stupidity, and all the other failings that are integral to the human condition. In such a real world, the strong and violent prey on the meek and docile and individual liberties are drowned in oceans of blood and tears.
We take it as a matter of principle that all people are created equal. Whether one considers that equality to spring from God, nature, or some other ethereal font is immaterial. We take our equality as fact. That is not to say that we are all equal in physical condition or material circumstance, but that we are equal in terms of our individual liberties and right to exercise thereof. As we are all equal, then all our individual liberties are equal and must be equally defended irrespective of our physical, mental, moral, or pecuniary strengths.
Without equality and individual liberty, we would not need government. We would be merely pigs in need of a good swineherd. If we had no inherent rights to self-determination of our bodies and our minds, then there is no need for any collective power to protect those rights. When conflict arises between two pigs, the swineherd does not dwell on the just cause of the afflicted or on the encroachment of rights. He simply slaughters the fatter pig to maintain order.
If we are to accept that we are not swine and, in fact, are human beings with inherent individual liberties, then we must accept that we must have civic order to coexist. That civic order must be enforced by someone or something. Without civic order, each human is left to defend his or her liberties from the onslaught of those who would take them by force. It is from the friction of grinding conflict that we generate the heat to forge government as a collective shield to protect our individual liberties.
The primary function of government is to define and enforce a civic order for the purpose of protecting our individual liberties from within and without. While our society has stretched the purpose of government into a means of concentrating power and wealth for use in advancing the collective will of the people, that is not the fundamental reason for government’s existence. When any government — whatever its composition — ceases to defend and protect our individual liberties, then it is no longer a legitimate government. It is an instrument of tyranny.